Jim Siergey: A Dusseldorf Doff of the Hat!

August 18th, 2014

Our two weeks in southern Europe visiting Krąków, Zakopane and Prague was coming to an end. My three traveling companions and I covered a lot of ground, mostly by foot, but also via bus, train, tram and the underground Metro. The time had come to board an airplane.

As I mentioned in Chapter One of this behemoth of a blog, my experience at the Prague airport was not a pleasant one. I kept setting off the metal detector so off came my belt and my shoes, my pockets were emptied of everything, even lint balls, and I was wanded and searched carefully by hand. Nothing, of course, was found so I was finally allowed to dress and depart for the gate.

Our stopover was in Dusseldorf, Germany. I love saying that name so I will do so again. Dusseldorf. I think there was a Randy Newman song about Dusseldorf. (There! I said it again!) Please excuse me while I Google.

Yep, “In Germany Before the War.” It’s on YouTube. Check it out. It’s a plaintive tune.

randynewmanThe great Mr. Newman once sang a song about Dusseldorf…

I must say this about the airport in Du—well, you know where. Bless those sweet Germans for their feather soft toilet paper. It even has the image of a feather embossed upon each sheet. It was heavenly after two weeks of the wood-chipped paper of Poland and the Czech Republic.

Now, I don’t know if any of you have ever flown Lufthansa but I highly recommend it. I’ve never flown First Class and I didn’t this time either but it sure felt like what I imagine First Class is like. First of all, this was a huge airplane, a football field in length, maybe longer. It had three rows of seats in proportions of four, six and four. There must have been eight bathrooms on this monster and those were just the ones near me. There may have been others further back and forward.

They fed us—more than once! It was tasty food too. Drinks were provided and not just juice, water and sodas—alcoholic drinks and at no charge! The wine kept a’flowin’. I had a glass, or maybe it was two, and eventually had a hankering for a cup of coffee. (I’m a bit of a coffee-holic). The flight attendant told me that it wasn’t finished brewing yet (NOT instant coffee!) so he refilled my glass with more wine. I asked him if he was going to continue plying me with wine and he replied that he would, at least until I began dancing in the aisles.

Lufthansa, folks, I’m tellin’ ya, it’s the real deal.

I was seated in the back row of the middle section of this flying party boat and when I stood to stretch my legs, I could see the fleet of seats before me. Ninety nine percent of the passengers were watching a movie or a TV show on the screens embedded in the seat backs in front of them. I saw one person playing video chess. The other percent was sleeping. I didn’t see anyone reading.

That task was taken care of by me. I refuse to watch movies on airplanes or move my seat back, even if I knew how. I consider it an invasion of my space when the person in front of me does it and I wouldn’t dream of doing it to the person behind me. I’m funny that way, I guess. Latent martyr complex or something.

Anyway, pretentious little me sat and read my collection of stories by Franz Kafka that I purchased at a bookstore in Prague. I was in Prague, I had to buy some Kafka, right?

After we touched down back in Chicago, my wife and I had to stop on the way home to replenish our empty fridge. What did we buy for our dinner? Potato pancakes!

We just couldn’t get southern Europe out of our system.

 

Editor’s Note: Jim‘s last post for The Third City was Czech Mate

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Jim Siergey: Czech Mate

August 8th, 2014

My three traveling companions and I successfully repeated boarding and disembarking three different trains from Krąków to Prague. Considering some of our previous misadventures in direction, we heralded it as a major triumph. We rode in private train cars, just like in all those old British films. However, there was no sighting of Hercule Poirot or evidence of any murders being committed.

Prague is divided into nine districts. We stayed in the district called Staré Město, once again in the Old Town area. The centuries old buildings in Prague are very Rococo compared with those of Krąków. The detail and artistry found in the buildings, the doors, the manholes(!) and especially the churches is overwhelming.

Speaking of churches, May is the Prague Spring festival season and music blooms all around. A concert, generally with a string quartet is performed every night in some church everywhere. We attended quite a few. However, despite the abundance of churches, the Czech Republic is 98% atheist and weed is legal. It’s a fuckin’ paradise, man!

We performed all the requisite tourist duties, viewed the Astronomical Clock, Wenceslas Square, crossed the Charles Bridge, which is adorned with dozens of religious-themed statuaries, along with musicians and artists presenting their wares for sale, visited the Prague Castle and the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral which housed stained glass windows that were nearly a hundred feet high. One of the windows was designed by Alfons Mucha.

johnlennonwall

The John Lennon wall…

 

Anyone who was of age in the 1960s should remember the work of Mucha. His Art Nouveau posters were all the rage back then and adorned many a wall in college dorms and other opium dens. He is almost a god in the Czech Republic. When Czechoslovakia gained its independence after World War I, Mucha designed their currency, their stamps, a new coat of arms and even governmental buildings! His masterpiece, The Slav Epic consists of 20 canvases that depict the history of Czechs and other Slavic peoples. However, he is best known for his Art Nouveau posters. There is a lovely and tasteful Mucha Museum in Prague that is well worth visiting.

Another item of interest that we visited was the John Lennon Wall. The Lennon Wall began as a tribute to the former Beatle after his murder in 1980 and was a source for societal complaints and Beatles lyrics that would be whitewashed over by the Secret Police. The authorities couldn’t keep up with the constant remergence of art and graffitti so it remains today being constantly added to by visitors and inhabitants both. One could make a killing with a spray can concession at that site.

The whimsically erotic sculptures of David Cerny can be found scattered throughout the city, including the one of two men urinating into a pool that suspiciously looks like the map of the Czech Republic located outside the Kafka museum. There is a lot of public art throughout Prague.

There is also a lot of good food (if you like meat and dumplings, that is. Both Krąków and Prague are lands that vegetables forgot—except for cabbage) and beer. In Prague one can imbibe a brew that is called “tanked beer”. It is an unfiltered process where no oxygen touches the beer until it is poured. It definitely has a different taste but I’m not enough of a connoisseur to comment any further. Burp!

During our stay, nighttime dining was a bit of a challenge as many pubs and eateries were jam-packed with people watching The World Hockey Championship matches. The Czechs take hockey very seriously.

This one place we were in did not have a huge screen with the game projected upon it as several other places did so it was pretty empty. In fact, by the time we had finished our dinner we were the only people in the joint. As we looked about in order to ask for our bill we found that the staff had disappeared as well. We had to go in search of someone to take our korunas.

In an adjoining room, back by the bar and the kitchen, we found the wait staff huddled around a tiny portable TV watching the final seconds of the Czech Republic-Canada hockey game. The Czechs had valiantly scored two goals in rapid succession and were only one goal from tying the Canadians as the seconds ticked away. Despite many shots on goal and the emphatic cheers and urgings of the wait staff, the homeland lads fell short.

Only then were we able to settle up and depart into the saddened city.

 

Editor’s Note: Jim’s last post for The Third City was Room With A Mountain View

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Jim Siergey: Room With A Mountain View

August 3rd, 2014

Zakopane (pronounced Socko-ponny) is a town in southern Poland located at the foot of the Tatra Mountains on the Slovakian border. It is a ski mecca and where the Poles go to vacation. In reading about it, it sounded like a cool place to visit and the Poles living here in Chicago said that we must go there. It was only a two hour bus ride from Krakow, so we add it to our itinerary.Allow me to backtrack a bit. Before we undertook this European journey, my friend Bill invited me to come with him to a bar he sometimes goes to in Berwyn. He said that the bartender there is from Zakopane and maybe she’d have some advice for us.

So off to Berwyn we went. That particular bartender was off that night and when we explained our desires to see her to the bartender filling in for her, she said “Well, I’m from Zakopane too.”

She gave us the name of a friend of hers who had just opened a Bed and Breakfast in Witów, a small village about 10 miles west of Zakopane. I emailed back and forth a few times with Monika (the owner and thank goodness for Google Translate) and a reservation was set up.

Meanwhile, back in Kraków, Dora, Flora, Maura and I hopped a bus and headed out to the mountains. Upon our arrival, we immediately noted a big change. In Krakow, many people spoke English. Out in Zakopane the language spoken was strictly Polish. The only Polish the four of us could speak were the names of food and a few phrases that if replied to, we’d be at a loss for any further conversation. The fact that I couldn’t find the business card with the name and address of the place was of small, if any, help. I did, however, have the phone number so with the assistance of a cab driver and the iTranslate app on my wife’s Smartphone thing-a-ma-jig, we did ultimately arrive in Witów.

The place was, to lift a word from Mr. Cole Porter, “De-lovely”. It had originally been Monika’s grandfather’s farm and the stable had been remodeled into a large common room with four bedrooms with baths upstairs. It was all refurbished in a beautiful light-colored oak. The rooms were full of light and the whole place was set in the countryside complete with a babbling brook. It was a welcome change and respite from the big cityness that we just left in Krakow, and would soon re-enter in Prague.

 

krakow2

Beautiful, downtown Krakow…

 

Monika was a wonderful hostess and provider of food (a large breakfast was included) and information (in a mostly Polish with a bit of English sort of way). She even gave us a ride into town as well as provided us with return bus information.

More on that later.

We wandered about Zakopane a bit. It’s a nice-looking tourist town in a beautiful location. One could describe it as the Jackson Hole (or pick your own ski resort) of Poland. We took a cable car up to the top of Kasprowy Wierch, 1987 meters high. The view was breath-taking but the mountain peaks were completely covered with snow. The packed down snow made for very slippery footing so we couldn’t really explore as much as we’d have liked but the scenery was serene, Jack. We hung for quite a spell.

We eventually found our way back to the bus terminal and got on a bus headed in the right direction. As I said, Monika spoke little English and the English she did speak was heavily accented. We thought she had told us to get off at the first stop once we entered the city limits. So, once we saw the sign reading Witów, we scampered off the bus at the first stop only to discover that we were not where we should have been.

We were surrounded by farmland so there was nothing to do except walk along the highway on the muddy shoulder as cars sped past us. When we passed a herd of cows we knew we were headed in the right direction because we had passed them going into Zakopane. It was quite a bucolic scene. Every cow wore a cowbell and with the constant tinny dinking of their bells, there was no need to quote Christopher Walken. One of the cows stopped chewing her cud and stared at us in utter (udder?) disbelief and wonder as we slogged by.

 

cowswine

No cow jokes, please!

 

As we walked, we noticed that all the buildings and houses were triangular in shape…just like the mountains. But not A-frames, they were multi-level as well as multi-dimensional and always in a triangular motif. It was a nice touch.

Fifty long minutes later (and just as dusk was settling in) we reached Home Sweet Bed and Breakfast Home. During our trek, we counted the bus stops. What Monika said to us may have sounded like “the first stop” but what she had actually said was “the fourth stop.”

D’oh-ski!

Despite our misdirected miscommunication culminating in a clumsy hike, our stay in Witów and Zakopane was sweet and too short. Now we had to return to Krakow, and take what turned out to be three trains to Prague.

Orient Expressville, Daddio!

 

Editor’s Note: Jim‘s last post for The Third City was Krakow

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Jim Siergey: Krakow Continued

July 28th, 2014

I was in Krąków with my trio of intrepid explorers, Dora, Flora and Maura. We stayed in a pair of apartments a mere two blocks from the town square. Our landmark was the majestic St. Mary’s Basilica. Erected in the 1300s, its two uneven towers tower above the plethora of churches that dot the landscape of Krąków. As you may have heard, Poland is a very Catholic country. You can’t swing a cat without bumping into one—churches or Catholics.

The towers of St. Mary’s are uneven because of sibling architectural rivalry. Two brothers were building each tower and one killed the other because he didn’t want the other’s tower to be taller. Throughout the history of mankind, size continues to matter.

There is also a trumpeteer who plays a shortened plaintive tune every hour from a window of the taller tower. The story is that back in the old days (and since we’re in Europe, these were really old days. Old with an e at the end.), the city was under attack and the trumpeteer was sounding the alarm by playing Hejnał mariacki a trumpet signal. His blowing was cut short by an arrow through his throat. Be it truth or legend, a trumpet that abruptly ends its tune is played every hour. I can say with certainty that it’s played every hour as I heard it at two and three in the morning.

There is a lot of beer flowing in Krąków and much of it is dark, which was fine with me as the inkier the brew, the drinkier I do. I was pleasantly surprised to find Zywiec and two brews found in Chicago, available as Porters. Sitting at a café table out in the town square, watching the world go by as one sips a cold one while nibbling on sauerkraut and sausages is vacation mode at its best.

One evening, as we were perusing the menu posted outside one of the various restaurants scattered throughout the square, a tall fellow in a long red coat came out to entice us to dine inside.

“You like good Polish food?” he asked, “We have the finest in Krąków, also Georgian style too.” I’m sure he didn’t mean grits and barbeque but Russian-style cuisine.

My cousin inquired “Gołąbki?”

jimsiergeypoland

Jim went to Poland and all he got…

 

Gołąbki is the Polish spelling of Golapki, pronounced Go-Woomp-ki. Stuffed cabbage rolls to all you Anglos. Gołąbki is generally stuffed with ground beef, rice, onions and seasonings, wrapped in a cabbage leaf and covered in a tomatoey sauce. I should inform you that my cousin, my sister and I are of Polish descent. My grandfather made the best Gołąbki and my cuz hadn’t had any since her mother passed away and she wanted to have some in Poland. Curiously, we did not find it on the many menus we had perused.)

Goląbki?” the red-coated fellow replied, his eyebrows arching in surprise, “You want Gołąbki? Come, I show you the best Gołąbki in town.”

He proceeded to march down the street and the three of us followed. This tall man in the billowing red coat was the Pied Piper and we were the ratty children following him to the Promised Land where not manna but Gołąbki would fall from the sky. (Please excuse my mixed metaphors) We scampered to keep up with his wide stride as he turned the corner and walked down another street before turning into a narrow alleyway.

“Hmmm”, our suspicious minds whirred as we hesitantly but hungrily followed this fellow down this dubious-looking thoroughfare. But it soon opened into a brightly lit area with a couple of stores and a rustic-looking establishment called Chlopskie Jadlo. This was the place. He led us in, conferred with the waiter for a bit and then returned to his post.

We had a marvelous dinner. They indeed had Gołąbki with both a tomato sauce and a mushroom sauce. We fortified ourselves with before-dinner shots of Gorzka vodka and then gorged ourselves on a good old-fashioned Polish dinner. We later learned that Chlopskie Jadlo translated into “peasant food”.

Speaking of vodka, the pride of Poland is Żubrówka Bison Grass vodka. I swallowed a stampede of this stuff every chance I got. “Na Zdorovie!” (“To your health!”)

We spent a delightful week in Krąków, lots of wandering around, visiting museums and other points of interest as well as just enjoying…being there. Oh, before I write off Krąków I need to add that I did actually see a Pole carrying a pole. It made my day.

It was now time to head south, to the Tatra Mountains and the paradisiacal town of Zakopane.

 

Editor’s Note: Jim‘s last post for The Third City was Jimmy Krakow

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Jim Siergey: Jimmy Krakow And I Don’t Care

July 17th, 2014

I used to say that I’ve been to Canada and I’ve been to Mexico but I’ve never been to Europe. I can’t say that anymore. In early May I visited Poland and the Czech Republic. If you count airport layovers, throw Germany into the mix too.

The trip started out on a wonderful note as, through some sort of Lottery-like dispensation, I did not have to remove my shoes or belt when moving through airport security nor did I have to subject myself to a full body scan. I was walking on air, soon to be flying through it.

(Alas, all things even out. On my return trip to the U.S of A., in the Prague airport, beltless, shoeless and with pants pockets turned inside out, I was frisked down to my socks. Symmetry, that bane of my existence, struck again.)

My traveling companions were my wife, my cousin (whose suggestion of traveling to Poland got this whole excursion started) and my sister. My cousin is of the female gender so, yes, guys, I spent two weeks traveling with three women. It was fine as long as one inured oneself to the different concepts of “Time” that men and women have. You know what I mean.

Example: When men say “Okay, ready? Let’s go.” They get up and…go. I don’t think I need to expound on this any further.

At one point in Krąków, we were waiting in line for an event. I struck up a conversation with the fellow behind me, an older gentleman from the Netherlands. He carried a cane and was dressed quite snappily in an overcoat, a smart hat and an ascot. It was the first time I had ever seen an actual person wearing an ascot, much less spoke with one. We palavered quite pleasantly. I mentioned that I was having a great time but vowed never to travel with three women again. He indicated his wife behind him and said “It’s difficult enough with one. You have my sympathy.”

Address those cards and letters to The Third City, ladies.

Krakow1If you look close, you’ll see Mr. Siergey in the background…

 

Krąków, by the way, is a beautiful city. Its centuries-old buildings are in fine fettle as they were untouched by the destruction caused by World War II because the Nazis decided to make Krąków their headquarters. I guess we have something to be thankful for from that odious regime.

We stayed in Stare Miasto, the Old Town section, and tromped all over the place. We, exaggeratingly, walked at least a hundred miles a day. Seeing all these buildings and cobblestone streets that are many centuries old wowed me to no end. We visited the expansive Walwel Castle, the fairy tale–like Barbicon which was the fortress that allowed or denied entry into the medieval city. Behind it is the Florian Gate, a towering tower built in the 1300s that opens into the ancient city. Amusingly, in a non-funny way, the first thing one now sees upon passing thru the massive gate is a McDonalds restaurant.

The Wieliczka salt mine, where I encountered the gent from the Netherlands, is quite incredible. This is a salt mine filled with tunnels, chambers and saline lakes but what is amazing about it is the exquisitely rendered carvings and sculptures that are there—all carved out of salt. Statues of noblemen, saints, Pope John Paul (who hailed from Krąków), historic re-enactments, artistic reproductions i.e “The Last Supper”, even an entire cathedral complete with chandeliers carved of salt!

chicagomovie

Oh, that Chicago!

 

It was there that I struck up another conversation with the chap sitting next to me on the bench as we awaited entry to the mine. He was a young tattooed lad from outside of London. He asked where I was from and I told him “Chicago.” He pondered this a bit and then queried, “That’s in the midwestern part of the country, isn’t it?”

“Yes”, I replied and then, taken a bit aback by what appeared to be his unfamiliarity with ‘Chicago’, I got down to stereotypes and said “Y’know, Chicago…Al Capone…Michael Jordan…?”

He looked at me in a non-plussed manner, gave a laconic shrug and busied himself with his cigarette. Blimey, are the youth of Great Britain as geographically clueless as our own?

I’ve a few more anecdotes regarding Krakowians and Chicago. Here’s one.

In the town square there are many folks trying to make a living in various ways; selling artwork, playing music and giving tours, to name a few…as well as a few other enterprises that arise well after dark (nudge, wink). One girl (not from the after dark venue) came up to me and asked if I’d like to take part of a group tour. I politely declined but she was persistent.

“We speak many languages”, she assured me. “Where are you from?”

“Chicago.” I replied.

She looked forlorn. “Oh, I am sorry,” she said, “We don’t speak Chicago, only English.”

I don’t think she knew how right she was.

Another time a young fellow responded to my Chicago answer with “Oh, the Chicago Bulls. I love the Chicago Bulls. And Michael Jordan!” He obviously didn’t go to school in England.

My favorite remark came from a woman who was leading us to our table in a restaurant. “Oh, Chicago! I know Chicago. I love the music.”

“Well, yes”, I muttered in response, “The home of the Blues…”

“Richard Gere!” she cried “and Rene Zellweger!”

It was then I realized that she was speaking of “Chicago,” the musical.

Well, what do you know, my word limit is just about used up and I haven’t gotten to the beers, the bison grass vodka or the Gołąbki yet.

Stay tuned.

 

Editor’s Note: Jim‘s last post for The Third City was Judgment Calls

 

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Grabowski: Yoga Man

July 11th, 2014

When I walked into the park district field house for my first yoga class, I didn’t know what to expect. Though I generally like to do my research before doing or buying something, in this case I had not.

It was as if my aching body intuitively knew I needed yoga. My muscles were tight from years of driving, sitting at a computer, jogging and cycling without stretching. The recent back strain I had gotten while bending over to get something out of the freezer was the last straw.

I enjoyed that first class so much, that according my Excel spreadsheet of lists, I went 400 times over the next three years.

One thing I liked about yoga was stretching for an hour or longer, without rushing from one muscle group to the next, and with no pressure to achieve any minimum level of flexibility.

“Don’t worry about what your neighbor is doing, just be present in your own mind on your own mat,” I have heard many teachers say.

It took me awhile, but I also realized that besides the physical benefits, there were mental ones as well: during yoga you are free from outside distractions, spending time in the peace and quiet of your own mind, letting thoughts come and go with each breath.

Exhaling stress, worry, regret and to do lists. Putting things into perspective. Thinking about the good and the bad, about nothing and about everything.

yogaman

Grabowski does yoga!

 

After that initial obsession, I went through a few-year period of only going sporadically, because we had moved and I didn’t get into a routine in our new neighborhood.

When we later bought a house, I found an idyllic studio nearby.

The first time I went, it felt like that first class years ago, and it was as if the teacher was speaking only to me.

“You should thank yourself for taking the time to do something good for yourself tonight,” she said. “Even though you might like to come more often, coming occasionally is better than not at all.”

My new teacher is passionate and genuine and exudes a yoga lifestyle, in a stylish, non-hippy way. Throughout class she casually interjects comments that relate our poses to our minds and lives.

She once made us hold a difficult pose for so long that my inner voices began to curse. Knowing what we must have been thinking, she suggested that we embrace the annoyances and fears in our lives rather than avoid them.

Every class she says something that resonates and makes me look at my life a little differently, more positively.

I still don’t go to yoga as much as I used to or as much as I would like to.

But when I do go, I am glad to be there, even if I still can’t wrap my foot around the back of my head while balancing on one leg, like the girl next to me.

 

Editor’s Note: Grabowski‘s last post for The Third City was Friday Night Live

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Jim Siergey: Judgment Calls

July 8th, 2014

Almost everything I do is against my better judgment.  This, of course, begs the question: Do I even have better judgment?

I tend to overdo the self-destructive things, underdo the healthy things and, sadly, not do the thoughtful things.  I have plenty of good intentions, though.  I understand that they can make fine paving stones.

Fortunately, for me and society, my wife is not only, to use that time-honored and shopworn phrase, my “better half”, she is also my better.  This I can state unequivocally and no one who knows us would argue otherwise.  Therefore I leave many, if not most, of the judgment calls to her so that they will turn out better than how I would choose.

Since I’ve known her, this modus operandi has kept me out of such unsavory places as jail, the poorhouse and the gutter.  Paradoxically, what is invariably at the root of all those eventual landing places is the pleasurable experience called “fun”.  Fun is nothing to take lightly as, is often evident, it can end up having you.

But, man, fun, fun, fun ‘til your T-Bird gets taken away, am I right? Fortunately, I was able to survive many flings with fun that was had at the cost of better judgement.   Being as old as I now am, the type of fun I used to have is harder to come by.  It’s also a little harder to handle.

When you’re an old codger like me, you’ve got to grab whatever comes closest to fun and hold it tightly in both of your withered and veiny hands, clutch it to your chest and cherish it for as long as you can because you never know when you’re going to nod off and fall asleep.

muddywaters

Muddy Waters had the right idea…

 

Hot-rodding down the streets, picking up chicks, smoking massive amounts of reefer and downing massive amounts of whatever type of alcohol or drug is available has been replaced with such subdued pleasures as the quiet company of close friends, reading a good book, watching children play, trying to get the iPod to work and ingesting massive amounts of MeTV.

Not that I don’t try to relive those misspent moments of my youth (and who says they were misspent?  Care to step outside, bub?).  I still drive as fast as I possibly can, except in Rahm’s Speed-Cam zones (if I remember) and at night (The auras! The auras!).  I’m too out of shape to pick up chicks (being a 198 pound weakling with a pot belly).

But I’m still willing to test the capacity of my liver and lungs with the Muddy Waters Blue Plate Special (“Champagne and Reefer”) if it’s placed in front of me (or to the side, I’m not particular but, please, not behind me; all that twisting and turning will just result in dosages of Mentholatum and Naproxen).

A plethora of parentheses aside, one need only remember what hath been written in the Good Book. “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” …unless your name is Judy.

See what I mean?

 

Editor’s Note: Jim‘s last post for The Third City was No More Mr. Big Dick…

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